Training with Tattoos: An Ink-query

Ideally, you don’t want to mess with a healing tattoo. This includes wearing tight abrasive clothing that will continually rub against it, bending it, or causing the area to stretch excessively. Disrupting the healing process by overworking the area can distort your piece and cause some of the ink to fall out—essentially turning your Michelangelo to a Picasso/Rorschach Test.

Training With Tattoos: An Ink-query

By: Monica Rosenberg, RN and BLOC Staff Coach

Coach Monica graduated from nursing school Summa Cum Laude and received her RN license in 2019, beginning her career concurrently with the pandemic. She’s battle-ready to engage head-on with helping you conquer obstacles. Monica has always held the belief that “the best way through is together as a team” close to her chest, and that’s what you will be. Get Coaching from Monica.


I have gotten tattoos every year since I was 18. I’m 27 now. I started training when I was 19 as a freshman in college so I’ve been around the BLOC(k) a few times with adjusting training when I have an upcoming appointment. My friends joke: “What will you do when you run out of room?” Artistically, I’m gifted in being a canvas so that’s a hard question to answer. In any case, the quality of your finished tattoo depends on what steps you take during the healing process. As with training, we know that recovery is important. I’m here to suggest how to adjust training when you have the itch for some fresh ink.

What’s Getting Under Your Skin?

As far as planning when to go and what to get, that’s entirely up to you. If this is your first tattoo or a new addition to the collection, just make sure—like with coaching—you hire a skilled professional. You entrust us to keep you safe and help you progress appropriately. In the tattoo realm, you want a clean shop with professionals who know what they are doing. Any professional tattoo artist will offer suggestions on placement and recommendations for modifying a piece to ensure it looks good for the long haul. After all, they do not want to tattoo something that will age poorly, as it will be a reflection of their work. Similar to a coach/client relationship, collaborate with your artist to make sure you love the design, as you’ll have it on your body until the end of days.

Before you depart from the shop after your appointment, your artist will wrap your tattoo. It’s up to you to allow it to heal properly. Your artist should provide you with aftercare instructions. If they haven’t, here are some general guidelines:

  • After you unwrap the tattoo (anywhere between 30 minutes to 2 hours) do not re-wrap it. You will trap bacteria and get an infection.
  • You now have an open wound on your body. Clean it at least three times a day the first few days with fragrance-free, antibacterial soap. No scrubbing!
  • Use a thin layer of ointment for two to three days after cleaning and then switch to a fragrance-free lotion.
  • Don’t soak the tattoo while it’s healing.
  • Do not use a hot tub or pool while it’s healing.
  • Don’t pick/scrape/scratch the tattoo.
  • After it starts scabbing, it will peel like a sunburn
  • Don’t pull off any scabs!
  • Keep your tattoo out of direct sunlight for 2 weeks.
  • After that, use sunblock on your tattoo if you do go in the sun.

Ideally, you don’t want to mess with a healing tattoo. This includes wearing tight abrasive clothing that will continually rub against it, bending it, or causing the area to stretch excessively. Disrupting the healing process by overworking the area can distort your piece and cause some of the ink to fall out—essentially turning your Michelangelo to a Picasso/Rorschach Test.

Do not work out for at least three days after you get a new tattoo. We’re waiting for the scab to form on this open wound. Infections can be gnarly, and also interfere with how the piece heals. That’s not something you want to deal with, especially after spending a significant amount of money. Yuck.

All Pain, No Gains

I wait to train until the scabs flake off and the area feels normal with movement, so I don’t run the risk of any scabbing being pulled or scraped off too quickly by moving. If I feel any pulling while I try to lift, I give it more time. This can be anywhere from 7 to 14 days after the tattoo, depending on the size and location of the piece, level of detail, and if it’s an outline, shading, or both.

For example, a tattoo on a bendy part of your body (like the elbow, knee, wrist, ankle, or shoulder) may take longer to heal than a piece on your bicep, forearm, or thigh because the bendy parts move around more. You don’t have to wait as long as I do, but I’d rather not have to go back for a touch up because I didn’t wait a few more days—and then have to start the process over. Similar to coaching, a tattoo is an investment. You get out what you put in. Tattoos will age just like our bodies, and how the aging process manifests depends on how well you care for them over time.

Timing

For maximum efficiency, I schedule tattoos around deloads so my short periods of less movement come when my body needs a bit of a break anyway. After all, we can’t run full throttle all the time. When I was in college, I scheduled my appointments around the holidays. My school’s gym was closed so the training I would be missing was already accounted for. That was the start of tattoo season for me. It remains tattoo season because I found my tattoos have healed better in conditions with less humidity, less direct sunlight, and less sweating. It’s dark and cold so I’m less likely to do much outdoors anyway.

Training Modifications

After taking enough time off that you’re comfortable with how you’re healing, you may still need to modify some of your exercises.  If you get a tattoo on your thigh, shin, or knee and don’t want to scrape it, try RDLs or floating deadlifts with the bar just slightly in front of your legs—or use a trap bar or kettlebell for your pulls. Inner bicep tattoo? Snatch grip deadlift. When my arm was still scabby, I used a leg press and an SSB because a low bar squat felt like it would rip the scabs off. Back piece where the bar goes? Front squat or SSB!

Got an intense leg piece on your hip/side/thigh? Emphasize upper body lifts and accessories while it heals. That way, after the initial three days or so of healing, you can continue to allow your lower body to heal but still train the upper body lifts. There are always ways to modify and adjust your training in the short term to keep from decimating your new tattoo.

The Healing LP

After I come back to training, I run a mini linear progression. It builds my work capacity again, doesn’t totally fry me, and I won’t be sore to the point that I can’t move when those whimsical DOMs pay a visit. A coach can help adjust your program specific to your situation but I take ~80% of my top sets before the break and then do each lift for 3×5 (except for the darling deadlift, of course, at 1×5). This accounts for about a 10% decrease per week that I didn’t train—if I go closer to the two-week mark of recovery.

Again, the larger and more detailed the tattoo, the more time it will take to heal. If you are getting something small, you probably only need half the time off, if that, so don’t get spooked. I have very large, detailed tattoos. One session was my inner forearm, from my wrist to my elbow. That’s a lot different than a palm-sized piece or a word or two. Another session was my entire left thigh.

Week of Nov 8th 2021:

Week of Nov 22 2021—starting numbers for my first week back training in full swing:

*My top set of 5 for press this training cycle was 122.5, so 95 is 77% of that.

The weights when I come back are usually moderately heavy, probably around RPE 7-7.5. In other words, they move alright but take effort. This is a great opportunity to focus on cues your coach has provided in previous sessions and hone in on fine-tuning your form.

Getting back to pre-tattoo numbers is largely based on the individual and how aggressive of jumps one can handle. This goes past physiological capabilities alone and also needs to factor in a person’s external stress. There are times when work at the hospital has been so draining or I haven’t been sleeping well because of working the night shift, that I need to take a few steps back anyway so I don’t grind myself down to the bone. The increases you take are dependent on you, the individual.

For me, it will probably take two to three weeks to ramp back up—with 10lb jumps for lower body lifts and 5lb jumps for the upper body. Press and squat will go to 2.5lb and 5lb jumps respectively, closer to the two-week mark. This is based on how I personally adapt to training stress but depending on work and life stressors, my rate of increase may change from that prediction. That’s okay! Bury the notion that you need to be rigid with your training.

Whether you’re getting a tattoo or not, let this be the permanent ink in your mind: events will come up in life that require taking time off of training for a bit. When you come back, be flexible with yourself. Give yourself time to adapt to your circumstances. This approach will only lead to less anxiety and stress, and allow you to enjoy training more.

Less think, more ink. I hope the only thing getting under your skin in 2022 is a tattoo needle!

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